God’s Guidance for Christians in Conflict

God’s Guidance for Christians in Conflict

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Copyright © 2010 by Mark D. Roberts

Note: You may download this resource at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you acknowledge the source of this material: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/. For all other uses, please contact me at mark@markdroberts.com. Thank you.

God’s Guidance for Christians in Conflict: Introduction

This is one blog series I wish were completely unnecessary. I wish conflict among Christians were a relatively insignificant problem. I wish we who believe in Jesus could experience the unity he commended to us (John 17:20-24). I wish there wasn’t animosity within churches and denominations.

But all of this is, I admit, wishful thinking. The fact is that Christians often have a hard time getting along with each other. This has been true from the earliest days of the church. The Apostle Paul, who planted the church in Corinth, wrote what we call 1 Corinthians to the believers there principally because of internal conflict in the church. By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, the tension was largely between Paul and his church.

Even in a healthy church, such as the one in Philippi, conflict was a problem. Thus Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians: “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Phil 4:2-3). Two prominent women in the Philippian congregation, people who had been Paul’s co-workers in ministry, were stuck in some sort of conflict such that they needed help from Paul and others to try and get along.

When I was a young Christian, I used to think that the solution to the ills of the contemporary church was to “get back to the early church.” If we could only believe and do as the first believers believed and did, we’d be on the right track. But the more I have studied the early church, the more I have come to recognize the manifold problems that plagued the first Christians. Among these, conflict played a central role.

Perhaps one of the most discouraging things about studying church history, from the first century onward, is to see just how often Christians have been mired in disputes and strife. Sometimes, in our worst moments, we have actually put to death fellow Christians whose theological convictions didn’t measure up to our personal standards. Not a happy story, not at all.

This was not what Jesus intended, to be sure. In his so-called “High Priestly Prayer” recorded in John 17, Jesus prayed:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)

A little earlier, Jesus had said to his disciples: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). To be sure, there are times when followers of Jesus do love each other in an exemplary way. But, far too often, such love is marred by conflict, tension, and outright meanness. And, far too often, we have not dealt with these problems in a loving way.

So, today I begin a blog series that seeks God’s guidance for Christians in conflict. This series will be relevant, I believe, to one-on-one relationships and to denominational disagreements. I will seek to discover and apply God’s revealed wisdom to conflict among Christians. My hope is that when we experience conflict in the church, we will be prepared to deal with it in a way that honors God and strengthens Christian community.

Tomorrow I’ll suggest a place where we might start when facing the problem of conflict among Christians.

Dealing with Conflict Among Christians: One Starting Point

Where should we start if we’re seeking God’s guidance for conflict among Christians? Here’s where my Protestant convictions come strongly into play. We should start with Scripture, with God’s inspired Word. Now this is always a good starting point, the best there is, in fact. But in times of conflict it’s even more essential that we begin with and cling to biblical teaching. There are several reasons why.

First, in times of conflict our natural human emotions often try to dictate our behavior. We feel anger and want to lash out. We feel fear and want to defend or attack. We feel wronged and want to get revenge. Yet if we allow our emotions to guide our behavior, inevitably we’ll simply make matters worse. Conversely, if we tenaciously hang onto biblical teaching, we’ll find the power to act rightly even when our feelings try to drag us in the wrong direction. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself wanting to get even with people who have wronged me. Yet by holding on for dear life to God’s Word I’ve managed to avoid behaviors that would have been both sinful and self-defeating, even if they seemed to be temporarily satisfying. (Photo: The copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the U.S. Library of Congress.)

Second, in times of conflict we must stand solidly upon Scripture because God’s ways of dealing with conflict are generally very different from the world’s ways. When we’re in the midst of some church battle, we’re tempted to adopt the ways of the world. Chief among these ways is the desire to win. We can also be tempted to use human schemes to defeat our opponents. We spin like we’re in the middle of a dirty political campaign. We rally the troops. We get out the vote. We defend ourselves. We play the victim. We undermine our opponents. We conveniently ignore facts that don’t support our side. We hold grudges, and so forth and so on. It will feel natural to us to use the world’s ways to win church battles, and, as we do, the world around us will cheer. But rarely are these the ways of a God who says to us, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Isaiah 55:8). The world doesn’t have much room for one who tells us to turn the other cheek, who calls us to forgive seventy times seven, and who urges us to imitate his humble, self-sacrificial servanthood. So we need the Bible to show us different ways to operate in times of conflict: the ways of peace, the ways of the gospel, the ways of Jesus Christ.

Third, in times of conflict among Christians, we need the Bible as the source both of practical guidance (here’s how to act) and of theological insight (here’s how to think about God and the church). The biblical combination of ethics and theology helps to shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Though this particular blogging series will be fairly practical, it will also be replete with theology, because that’s the way of God’s biblical revelation.

Ironically, I hope this series isn’t directly relevant to your life, at least not right now. But even if your church is in a blessed season of harmony, you may be able to direct others to the biblical guidance I will convey. Moreover, if you take seriously what I will share with you, you may very well help your church stay out of serious conflict. And, if this doesn’t happen and conflict comes, you will be able to be a peacemaker in your own community.

In my next post I’ll examine one of the most important of all biblical passages for discerning God’s guidance in the midst of conflict.

Let God Speak to You Through His Word

Yesterday, I suggested that Scripture should be a primary starting point for seeking God’s will when we’re in conflict with other Christians (or anyone, for that matter). Today, I want to draw your attention to one of the most important passages for discerning God’s guidance for Christians in conflict.: Philippians 2:1-11. On Monday I’ll offer some exegetical observations about this text. Today, however, I want to print the entire passage and then offer some guidance for how to let it impact your heart and your actions. I’m writing specifically for people who find themselves in conflict right now, though I hope you’ll find this to be worthwhile even if you’re not facing such a challenge today.

Here’s the passage from Philippians:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who,
though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2:1-11)

In light of this passage, if you’re in the midst of conflict with other Christians, let me urge you to do the following. And, frankly, you might well want to do this even if you’re not in a conflicted place right now.

1. Ask the Lord to speak to you through this section of his Word and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

2. Prayerfully, slowly read this passage. Read it at least three times. If possible, read it aloud. Let each word sink in. Be attentive to what God is saying to you personally. (Note: Don’t start applying this text to others and focus on what they need to do. Let the Lord speak to you about you.)

3. As God convicts you, go with it. Talk to him about it. Confess if you need to. Ask for his help to obey if you need to. Take time to talk with the Lord about how this passage should impact your life.

4. If you are able to do so, share with at least one other believer what God has been saying to you through Philippians 2. Be open to encouragement and or correction from this believer (or these believers). Ask them to pray for you as you move to the next step.

5. Act upon what God has said to you through this passage. Be a doer of the Word, not a hearer only (James 1:22). You may find it very hard to do what God wants you to do. Be assured: He will provide the strength you need if you depend on him.

I’m going to stop now. Yes, I have a few things I want to say about this passage. But right now I think I should get my words out of the way. What you need most of all is the Word of God, brought to life by the Spirit of God. My reflections will come in due time, and that time will be tomorrow. But I truly believe that if you’re experiencing conflict with other Christians, and if you take time to prayerfully meditate upon this section of Scripture, and if your heart is open to God, then He will guide you to do what is right and honoring to him. You will begin to see the conflict you’re in from God’s perspective. And you’ll begin to see how you can be an agent of God’s peace at this time.

May the peace of Christ be with you . . . really!

Having the Mind of Christ

On Friday I encouraged you to read Philippians 2:1-11 slowly and prayerfully. Today I’d like to highlight a few features of this astounding text.

If you’re in the middle of a conflict with other Christians, however, you might not like this passage very much. Your gut instinct is to win the battle, to be vindicated, to prevail over your opponents. But this text speaks of being agreeable, humble, and considering others as better than yourself. If you’re like me when I’m duking it out with my brothers and sisters in Christ, this is not what you want to hear. You’d probably prefer that I had sent you to Psalm 58:8, in which David prayed about his enemies: “Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime.” But, like it or not, if you’re a follower of Christ, you’ve got to deal with Philippians 2:1-11. More to the point, you’re stuck with the compelling and challenging example of Jesus himself.

Philippians 2 begins with a series of ethical injunctions that could be paraphrased: agree with each other; love each other; be humble; care more for the concerns others than for your own concerns. These imperatives are summarized in verse five: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” In a nutshell, we are to think as Jesus thought.

Paul doesn’t leave it up to us to decide what it means to think like Jesus. We don’t get to pick and choose from the gospel stories or to make up our own version of what constitutes the mind of Christ. Rather, Paul shows us quite clearly in verses 6-8 what it means to think like Jesus:

[Christ Jesus], though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.

This is a tricky text for a variety of reasons. For one thing, the language is rather unusual for Paul and therefore difficult to interpret. This fact, combined with the poetic structure of the passage, has led many scholars to propose that Paul is quoting an early Christian hymn, something he did not write. This explains the uniqueness of the language. But it’s also possible that Paul composed this poetic text when writing to the Philippians. In either case, it’s not easy to determine the precise nuance of every word here, even though the big picture is fairly clear.

Ruins of the ancient forum in Philippi. Photo used by permission of HolyLandPhotos.org.

What is this big picture? It’s an image of Christ’s active humility. It’s a portrait of one who was fully equal to God the Father, but who, nevertheless, chose to take on the form of a slave by becoming human. Moreover, this passage paints a shocking picture of a divine being who not only became human, but also chose to die a most humiliating and painful death by crucifixion. One cannot imagine a more startling and unsettling image of humility and self-sacrifice.

How might our conflict with others be different if we took seriously the humility of Jesus? How might we react to those who wrong us if we were to reflect upon the self-giving love of Christ? The beginning of Philippians 2 suggests that our relationships with others – including and especially when we’re experience differences and disagreements with them – would be radically different.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll continue to reflect upon Philippians 2 and its implications for our behavior when we’re experiencing conflict with other believers.

Having the Mind of Christ: Part 2

Throughout the ages, commentators and preachers have seen Philippians 2:1-11 as a theological reflection on Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13. In this gospel text, Jesus literally humbled himself, doing that which an actual slave would ordinarily have done. He did this to teach his disciples how they were to love each other, in anticipation of his ultimate act of love on the cross. In Philippians 2, Paul uses the image of the humble, self-sacrificing, serving, crucified Christ to teach the Philippians believers how they ought to treat each other.

Philippians 2 raises all sorts of tantalizing theological questions about the nature of Christ. In what way was he equal to God? In what sense did he empty himself? And so on. Yet Paul doesn’t deal with such questions in this text. Rather he uses the image of the humble Christ to show the Philippians – and by extension, to show us – how we ought to relate to each other. We’re called to imitate Christ, not in any way we please, but specifically with respect to his humbling, self-giving, sacrificial action.

This isn’t easy to do! It’s hard to do what this text requires in the best of times. Even when I’m getting along well with others I still find it natural to put my self-interest first. But, when you’re in the midst of conflict with other believers, doing what Philippians 2 requires is more than hard. It’s impossible . . . without God, that is. It challenges the very fiber of our being. It calls us to counter-intuitive and counter-cultural humility. And we’re just not wired to do this sort of thing apart from divine help.

But God’s help is available to us in several ways. These are highlighted in verse 1 of our text, which I’d paraphrase in the following way: “If there is any encouragement in Christ – which, of course, there is – any empowering comfort in Christ’s love – which, of course, there is – any partnership with the Holy Spirit – which, of course, there is – [agree together, love each other, etc.].” Here’s what God provides to help us do the impossible:

1. Encouragement in Christ  – The teaching and example of Jesus himself empower us to do what otherwise we could not do.

2. Empowering Comfort in Christ’s love – The more we experience Christ’s love for us, the more we will be enabled to love with this same sort of love. The more we are secure in Christ’s love, the more we will be able to take the risk of loving, not only our neighbors, but also our enemies.

3. Partnership with the Holy Spirit – When we put our faith in Christ, the very Spirit of God comes to dwell in us, empowering us with the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. The Spirit is in the process of making us more and more like Christ.

Years ago, I was the pastor in charge of a group of leaders. This group was in the midst of a nasty conflict. One of the leaders was especially vicious in the way she was treating another leader. I challenged her to think about what Jesus would do. Her response, shouted passionately, was: “I don’t care what Jesus would do! I’m not Jesus!” I was tempted to say, “Well, that’s fairly obvious,” but, by God’s grace, I didn’t. Instead I reminded her of the good news that God, through the Spirit, helps us to be like Christ even when our natural capabilities are inadequate. The confession “I’m not Jesus!” is actually a great place for every Christian to start, including me! But it’s not a place to end. Once we realize our own inadequacies, we’re ready to trust God more completely, and to discover that we can do all things through Christ who makes us strong (Philippians 4:13).

So, when you’re in the middle of conflict, ask yourself: “What would it be for me to have the mind of Christ here?” And don’t just ask yourself, ask Christ himself through prayer: “Lord, how would you think in this circumstance? How can I imitate your example of selflessness and humility now?” The more you look to Jesus, the more you’ll discover how you’re to act in controversial and divisive circumstances. The more you depend upon Jesus, the more you’ll find unexpected strength to be agreeable, loving, humble, other-directed, and Christ-like.

Corinth: The Paradigm of Christian Conflict If you consider the issue of Christians in conflict from a New Testament perspective, you will quickly focus on Corinth. No church in Scripture is more ridden with disagreement and controversy than the Corinthian church, which explains, in part why so much of the New Testament focuses on Corinth. It took the Apostle Paul multiple visits and letters, two of which we have in the New Testament, to sort out the problems in this church.

The letter we know as 1 Corinthians (which is actually Paul’s second letter, see 1 Cor 5:9) was written primarily because the Christians in Corinth weren’t getting alone with each other. After greeting the letter recipients at the beginning of the first chapter, Paul explains what he has learned about this church:

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul, “or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas, ” or “I belong to Christ.” (1:11-12)

The Greek word translated here as “quarrel” can also mean “argument” or “strife.” Paul uses this same word again in the third chapter of his letter: “For as long as there is jealous and quarreling [eris] among you, are you not of the flesh . . . ?” (3:3). The Corinthian church is being torn apart, not by one single controversy, but by multiple conflicts and tensions.

As we read through 1 Corinthians we can compile as list of these divisive issues. They include:

• Over-identification with one or another Christian leader.
• Too much pride in one’s own spirituality.
• Sexual immorality.
•Suing fellow Christians in court.
• Prostitution.
• Marriage and divorce.
• Participating in the worship of idols.
• Dressing immodestly in the church gatherings.
• Selfishness in church gatherings.
• Interrupting the gatherings with ecstatic utterances.

Beneath this plethora of issues lay the challenge of working out the Christian life in a non-Christian culture. When some of the people in Corinth put their faith in Jesus, naturally enough they brought along their cultural baggage, including prior experiences in paganism. For example, since it was commonplace for wealthier members of Corinthian society to eat in pagan temples, the privileged few in the Christian community continued to do what came naturally. Yet this scandalized other Christians, especially those who did not have the financial means to eat in temples and who, therefore, considered all temple visitation to be the worship of idols.

In my next post, and in several to follow, I will summarize Paul’s response to the conflicts in Corinth. As promised, I will draw practical conclusions as well as make some historical and theological observations.

For now, however, I simply want to note once again that conflict is a normal part of Christian experience. I’m not happy about this, of course. And Scripture makes it clear that God isn’t happy about this either. But conflict is a fact Christian fellowship. As I’ve said before, I once thought: “Oh, if I could only be back in time of the apostles it would be great. Then the church wouldn’t be in such as mess as it is today.” Yet, if you go back and read the New Testament carefully, especially the letters of Paul or the letters in Revelation 2-3 to the seven churches in Asia Minor, you realize that the church has experienced conflict from the get go. This fact encourages us not to be surprised when we face conflict today. We should be ready to see it in God’s terms and to follow God’s guidance for how to resolve it.

Whose Church is It?

In my last post I set up the first-century Corinthian church as a paradigm of a church in conflict. The letter we know as 1 Corinthians is the effort of the Apostle Paul to resolve the controversies that were plaguing this early Christian community.

Before we get into some of the specifics of this effort, however, we should look at how Paul addresses the Corinthians at the beginning of his letter. He writes to: “the church of God that is in Corinth.” “Church” translates the Greek word ekklesia, which meant “gathering” or “assembly,” and referred in particular to the gathering of voting citizens in Corinth. Paul wasn’t writing to the “ekklesia of Corinth,” a phrase that would easily have been misunderstood. Instead, he addressed his letter to the “ekklesia of God that is in Corinth.”

By referring to the Corinthian church as the church “of God,” Paul is doing more than distinguishing it from the civic voting assembly, however. He is also letting the Corinthians know who “owns” the gathering of Christians in Corinth. In a phrase: God does. The Christians are not simply one more religious club formed and guided by its members, of which there were many in first-century Corinth. Rather, the Corinthian assembly belongs to God in a strong, ultimate sense. (Later in the letter Paul will add that even the bodies of the individual Corinthians also belong to the Lord.)

Paul reiterates this point at the conclusion of his opening address: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9). Notice, first of all, that the Corinthian believers aren’t in the fellowship because they chose to join. From a theological point of view, they “were called” by God into the fellowship. They are members of the Corinthian church by God’s choice and invitation. Moreover, they belong not merely to a human institution, but to a fellowship that has been founded by and is the property of the very Son of God.

Twice in his opening address to the Corinthians, Paul emphasizes the fact that their gathering is not their own. It belongs to God the Father and to the Son of God. Later Paul will explain that the church comes into existence through the work of the Spirit of God (see 12:12-13). This is a fundamental truth about the church, and one Paul emphasizes intentionally because it relates to the problem of conflict among Christians.

To relate Paul’s point to the situation of conflict among Christians today, let me say this: when you’re caught up in a disagreement with other believers, you need to remember whose you are. You belong to God through Jesus Christ. This is true of you personally and also of the church. Whatever else it may be, the church is the church of God: the church that comes from God, is governed by God, and belongs to God.

So, if you’re in a fight with other believers that relates to a particular church, one of the first things you need to remember is that the church is not yours. It doesn’t belong to you. It doesn’t belong to the people who are on your side. It doesn’t belong to the majority of the members. It doesn’t belong to the founding members or their descendents. It doesn’t belong to the big givers. It doesn’t belong to the pastor, or the elders, or even the denomination (if there is one). Your individual church belongs to the triune God. Period. Every other “ownership” is really just a loan.

This basic truth makes a huge difference in the way we think and act with respect to the church, especially in times of conflict. For example:

• If we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll be more committed to finding God’s solution to our conflicts than making sure that our side wins.

• If we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll be quick to admit that our personal ideas about what should happen in the church may very well be wrong. Only one opinion really matters, the opinion that belongs to God.

• If we truly believe that the church belongs to God, then we’ll realize that the church is not to be trifled with. The church is not first of all a vehicle for my self-expression, or professional security, or enjoyment, or whatever. It is, first and foremost, a vehicle for God’s glory. The church exists to do God’s bidding, to represent God’s kingdom, and to bring praise to God.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for us to remember to whom the church belongs and, for that matter, to whom we belong. When I’ve was in the middle of a passionate argument with my elders at Irvine Presbyterian Church, for example, one of the best things we did is to stop and pray. As we care before God, we remembered that we were on holy ground. We relinquished our desire to control God’s church and submitted ourselves to his will. Before the majesty of God, we humbled ourselves and shared together in common humility. Such an experience of God’s sovereignty didn’t magically take away our disagreements, but it did put them in a completely different light. Antagonists vying for ownership of the church became fellow seekers for the will of the One who truly owns the church. Winning no longer mattered, except for the victory of God.

This process that I’ve just described happened several times throughout my ministry at Irvine Pres, though it usually didn’t flow as quickly or smoothly as the last paragraph would imply. Nevertheless, I’ve seen the recognition that the church is God’s church transform hearts, including my own. So, one of the most important things we can do if we’re in the middle of church conflict is to step back and remember – really remember – that the church belongs to the triune God.

What is the Church?

In my last post I worked with the question: “Whose church is it?” The answer from 1 Corinthians is clear. The church is God’s church. The church is the creation and “property” of the triune God. Acknowledging this means that when we’re in the midst of church conflict, we must seek God’s will for God’s church above all.

Today I want to ask a related “big question”: What is the church? What is this entity that belongs to God?

On the simplest level, a church is a gathering of people who belong to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Wherever Christians come together in Christ, there is a church. But this is just the beginning. In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul speaks of the church in striking and surprising language:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (3:16-17)

For years I read this passage as speaking about me as an individual Christian. A parallel text in 1 Corinthians 6 does indeed speak of the body of the Christian person as a temple for God’s Spirit (6:19). But the emphasis in chapter 3 is different. Here the temple of God is the church, the gathered fellowship of believers.

The context in 1 Corinthians 3 makes it clear that Paul is not focusing on individual believers when he says “you are God’s temple.” In verse 9, the Corinthian church is “God’s building” (3:9). Those who labor as church-planters are in the construction business, so to speak (3:10-15). So when we come to verse 16, we know that the temple of which Paul speaks is not the individual believer but the assembly of believers. The verse might be paraphrased: “Do you not know that you folks [plural in Greek] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells among you?” Or, to use the language of my new home state, “Do y’all not know that all y’all are God’s temple?”

This interpretation is confirmed in verse 17, which warns the Corinthians not to destroy God’s temple. The first three chapters of 1 Corinthians have to do, not with threats to individual believers, but with the threat of division in the church at Corinth. So when Paul says, “If anyone destroys God’s temple,” he’s referring to the church of God in Corinth, which is at risk because of the conflicts in the church.

The columns in the center of this picture are what’s left of the Corinthian temple for the Greek god Apollo. From holylandphotos.org

Part of what makes the church so special is the presence of God’s Spirit. When believers gather together, God is with them through his Spirit. The power of God is available so the church can be strengthened. Paul will have much more to say about this in chapters 12-14.

From the mere fact that the church is God’s temple, you’d naturally conclude that it ought to be treated with reverence and supreme care. But in case you missed that implication, Paul adds: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person” (3:17). Now that’s a threat to take notice of, don’t you think? Before you start trifling with the church of God, you’d better realize what you’re doing.

Sometimes, especially in the heat of church conflict, people can forget what they’re dealing with. They easily think of the church in human terms. I know pastors who have seemed almost willing to destroy a particular church in order to defend their reputation or career. How sad this is! And, given the threat of 1 Corinthians 3:17, how ill advised.

On the contrary, I have seen church leaders sacrifice their advantage for the sake of God’s church. A friend of mine was pastoring a solid and growing church when a faction that didn’t like his leadership tried to force him out. As he prayed about what was best for God’s temple, my friend decided that it would be best if he resigned. Though he felt sure that he could defeat his foes, he also believed that this fight would seriously damage the church. His career, his income, his reputation . . . none of these mattered as much as the church he loved so much. So he resigned.

I’m not suggesting that every embattled pastor should quit. But I am suggesting that every one of us, especially if we’re in the midst of church conflict, should realize, not only that the church belongs to God, but also that it is his temple, the dwelling place of his Spirit. With this in mind, we will do everything in our power both to honor and to protect the church, even if it involves self-sacrifice.

So, if you’re in the midst of church conflict, step back from the issues long enough to remember what it is you’re dealing with. Are you thinking of your church as the temple of God? Are you doing everything you can to protect and care for God’s temple?

How to Think About Christian Leaders, Part 1

During my years as Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, every once in a while I’ll hear somebody refer to the church as “Mark’s church.” Though I understood the shorthand, nevertheless it grated on my soul like fingernails on a spiritual blackboard. During my years as a Christian, I’ve seen cases where churches are so identified with the pastor that things are way out of balance. A church that belongs to God ends up being spoken of, and sometimes even thought of, as the personal property of some individual. The identity of pastor and church are so intertwined that it’s almost impossible to think of them as distinct. That which exists for the sake and glory of Christ ends up as a personality cult with the pastor as the dominant star. So, when somebody called Irvine Presbyterian Church “Mark’s church,” my warning lights flashed like Las Vegas at night.

The tendency of Christians to over-identify with their leaders is an old one. In fact, it goes back to the earliest years of the church. In the letter we know as 1 Corinthians, Paul gets right to the point after his opening address:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1:10-12)

Fundamental to the divisions and disagreements in the Corinthian church was the tendency for the different “parties” to identify with some Christian leader over and against the others. It’s easy to understand how this could happen, especially when you consider that in some of the pagan mystery religions the person who guided you into the mysteries held a special place in your heart.

Of course love and appreciation for Christians leaders is a fine thing. But when this love and appreciation becomes divisive or idolatrous, then we have a real problem. In Corinth, the different “leader parties” were splitting the church, with people claiming allegiance to their particular hero rather than embracing the whole church of Jesus Christ.

In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul seeks to set the Corinthians right by helping them to have a right understanding of Christian leadership:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. (3:5-9)

It seems that the Corinthians were divided especially into the group that supported Paul and the group that identified with Apollos, a more articulate preacher and one who might have had greater appeal among the more educated and wealthier Corinthians. Yet in their devotion to a human leader, the Corinthians were missing the point. Both Paul and Apollos were equally servants of God though they may have different functions. Moreover, they shared in the common purpose of building a church for God’s purposes. Yet the major point Paul makes is that the servants aren’t the main thing at all. God is the main thing. God is the Master of the servants. God is the only one who can cause the church to grow. God is the owner of the church, whether seen as a field or a building.

Paul wraps up his argument in verse 21 with a simple imperative: “So let no one boast about human leaders.” Though appreciation of leaders is fine, this must not run over into bragging or anything that would divide the church.

Here is a measure for determining the health of leadership in a church: How do the members talk about the leaders? Are they drawing up sides for and or against their leaders? Do they pit some leaders against others? Or do they see all leaders as servants of the One who really matters?

I confess that, during my years as pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church, I found it easy to get too entangled with the church I served. I could even begin to think of Irvine Presbyterian Church as “my church” in a way that wasn’t healthy. For me, this wasn’t so much about my glory as about an overactive sense of responsibility. Though God had called me to the Irvine church and though he blessed my ministry there, I was not nearly as essential to the church as I might have thought. God could take care of this church just fine without me. Though God used me at Irvine, I was not necessary to the life and health of the church. This has been demonstrated in the three years since I’ve been away from Irvine Pres, which is now being led by a fine new pastor, Scott Bullock.

In practice, it sometimes is not easy for a pastor or other leader to seek the glory of Christ in a church, especially when we find ourselves in the midst of conflict. In tomorrow’s post I’ll illustrate this reality from my own pastoral experience.

How to Think About Christian Leaders, Part 2

In yesterday’s post, I examined 1 Corinthians 3:5-9, considering its implications for how we think about church leaders. I closed by admitting that sometimes it is not easy for a pastor or other leader to seek God’s glory, especially when we are in the midst of conflict. I know from personal experience how difficult this can be.About fifteen years ago I was in the midst of one the hardest times in my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. I had a staff member I’ll call Shirley with whom I was having many conflicts. From my point of view, she was not fulfilling her job description in many, many ways. From her point of view, I was being imperious and unsupportive. Though I tried everything I could think of to make things work out, they were going south faster than a goose in November.

During this time, Shirley began to lobby the troops on her side. She complained about how I was mistreating her. She would visit shut-ins and tell them I was getting ready to fire her (which wasn’t true). She was clearly trying to divide the church and was doing a fine job of it. I must confess that I was sorely tempted to join the game and beat her at it. I wanted to get people on my side. I wanted people to know the truth and defend me. The church started to become all about me, . . . me, me, me. We were going the way of the splintered Corinthian church.

Everything came to a head at a meeting of our congregation. This was by far the toughest meeting I’d ever been a part of. The elders of the church were recommending that we dismiss Shirley from our staff. In the congregational debate, many people chewed me out for what they perceived to be my management flaws. These were people who believed they knew the truth because they had heard it from Shirley. The temptation to divide and conquer the church was huge for me. But, by God’s grace and following the counsel of my fellow leaders, I didn’t do it. I took my licks, even ones I didn’t deserve. I owned my failures and tried to listen to what people were saying to me. Frankly, it was excruciating. But I sensed that my job as pastor was to help the church be unified in Christ, not divided in order to defend me. Many of my supporters sensed the same. Though they could have risen to my defense, they realized that it was not the time to do so. Wisely, they remained quiet, and so avoided a fight that could have deeply wounded our church.

The congregation did, in the end, vote to dismiss Shirley. I left feeling, not vindicated, but ashamed and exhausted. Several friends gathered around to encourage me. But I still felt as if I had been taken to the congregational woodshed for a beating.

In the aftermath of that meeting, only a couple of people left our church, much to my surprise. In time, many of those who had scolded me actually came to apologize. One man said, “It was only later that I learned some of what had really happened with Shirley. I’m sorry for the things I said to you.”

But the greatest result of that whole debacle was not that I was somehow more highly regarded or more beloved or whatever. It was that our people ended up, truly, more united in Christ. I can’t explain how this happened, exactly, except that it was a work of grace. But I do know that my effort, and the efforts of those who supported me, to focus on Christ and not on me helped move us toward such a positive result. Nevertheless, I still look back on this whole experience, and the congregational meeting in particular, as one of the hardest times of my ministry. It required that I subordinate myself to a degree I had never done before. It required that I trust in God rather than my abilities to persuade and organize.

If you’re caught in a church conflict, watch out for the role of leaders in that conflict. If battle lines and being drawn up around certain personalities, don’t participate. And if you’re a pastor, I’d urge you to remember – as hard as it may be – that you are merely a servant of the Master. Devote yourself to seeking what’s best for whole church. Seek to unify rather than divide. Don’t let your people choose up sides, even if this game seems to be to your favor. Rather, do all you can do to further the peace and unity of Christ’s church. Let the focus be upon him, with yourself as his servant.

How NOT to Solve Conflicts Among Christians, Part 1

My friend “Jeff” was the pastor of a church in Southern California. He and I became friends because we shared many of the same challenges as well as the same basic faith in Jesus Christ. I always liked Jeff because he was humble, earnest, and a deeply caring servant of God.

Jeff’s church was on the conservative side, both theologically and liturgically. They had hymns and an organ, proudly so. Nevertheless, Jeff wanted to add a few more contemporary touches to the worship services, like praise songs and a more informal time of prayer. So, one Sunday, he made these slight changes. His elders were not happy with Jeff, however. At the next board meeting there was a big fight, with two or three of the elders denouncing Jeff in demeaning ways. In the end, however, the board voted to sustain what Jeff had done, much to the dismay of the minority that had opposed him.

Two days later, while Jeff was sitting in his office at church, he received an ominous looking letter from a law firm in town. Reading the letter, he was distressed to learn that one of his elders was suing him in civil court because of the changes he had made in worship. I can’t remember the specific charges, but I do well remember Jeff’s great distress over what was happening to him and his church. He just couldn’t believe that one of his elders would actually sue him over a church matter.

Since Jeff shared his plight with me eight years ago, I’ve heard other things like this. Another pastor friend of mine was sued by a former church leader for failing to lead the church in the right direction. I’ve heard of pastors who have threatened to sue members of their church when they felt they were being mistreated. And I’ve watched with concern as individual churches and denominations rush to secular courts to solve church related property issues. Sometimes this happens in my own denomination as particular churches decide to part company with us.

The problem of Christians using the legal system to deal with conflicts with other believers isn’t new. In fact this was one of the problems facing the church in Corinth in the middle of the first century A.D. We learn from 1 Corinthians 6 that one member of the church had some sort of dispute with another member. But rather than work it out within the church, one of the believers sued the other in secular court. This sort of behavior was common among the wealthy members of Corinthian society. Winning in court was usually more a matter of preserving honor than getting a financial settlement. And being held in honor was the highest value among the Corinthian elites.

This is the platform (bema in Greek) where legal disputes in Corinth were publicly adjudicated. This is the place where, in Acts 18, Paul was charged in the presence of the Corinthian proconsul.

But the Apostle Paul was not pleased with what was happening in his church. Here’s what he wrote to the Corinthians:

When you have something against another Christian, why do you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter, instead of taking it to other Christians to decide who is right? Don’t you know that someday we Christians are going to judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why do you go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you. Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these arguments? But instead, one Christian sues another–right in front of unbelievers! To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? But instead, you yourselves are the ones who do wrong and cheat even your own Christian brothers and sisters. (1 Cor 6:1-8)

What is wrong with Christians suing other Christians in court? First, there should be sufficient wisdom in the church to solve conflicts. Notice that Paul assumes that disputes among Christians are the business of the church. If a Christian brother has a conflict with another brother, that’s not a private matter. It’s something that impacts the church and is part of the church’s rightful concern.

Moreover, for Christians to sue each other in secular court looks terrible to observing unbelievers. It certainly doesn’t commend the gospel of Jesus Christ if Christians sue each other. For that matter, the desire to win and get even doesn’t reflect the cross of Christ at all. Thus Paul can end his denunciation of Corinthian lawsuits with a rather shocking statement: “To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated?” (6:7).

Tomorrow I’ll continue this discussion about how NOT to solve conflicts among Christians.

How NOT to Solve Conflicts Among Christians, Part 2

Yesterday I examined a passage from 1 Corinthians 6, which instructed Christians to avoid solving their problems in secular court. Let me quote that text again before suggesting some practical implications.

When you have something against another Christian, why do you file a lawsuit and ask a secular court to decide the matter, instead of taking it to other Christians to decide who is right? Don’t you know that someday we Christians are going to judge the world? And since you are going to judge the world, can’t you decide these little things among yourselves? Don’t you realize that we Christians will judge angels? So you should surely be able to resolve ordinary disagreements here on earth. If you have legal disputes about such matters, why do you go to outside judges who are not respected by the church? I am saying this to shame you. Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these arguments? But instead, one Christian sues another–right in front of unbelievers! To have such lawsuits at all is a real defeat for you. Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? But instead, you yourselves are the ones who do wrong and cheat even your own Christian brothers and sisters. (1 Cor 6:1-8)

In our time of history, this may be one of the most counter-cultural passages in all of Scripture. It’s not news that we live in a highly litigious culture. People sue each other right and left for the most trivial things. It’s a given in our society that you should never “accept the injustice and leave it at that.” Rather, we are taught to press every possible advantage for the sake of gain, even if that means suing a fellow believer in court.

I realize that some Christians will be offended by the suggestion that we should let 1 Corinthians 6 guide our behavior when it comes to suing each other. Some of my readers might find what I’m saying downright offensive. Let me clarify that I’m not saying Christians should never turn to secular courts under any circumstances. There may be times when a church system is so dysfunctional and the damage done to people so significant that justice can only be found in the secular courts. The tragic case of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is one such example. Moreover, when the behavior of church officials is illegal, then justice requires legal action in criminal court. But Christian use of the courts to solve personal conflicts is nothing we should be proud of or seek to perpetuate. But Christian use of the courts is nothing we should be proud of or seek to perpetuate. Whatever else, secular lawsuits should be the last resort among Christians.

Moreover, there are times when a person should simply choose to lose rather than to sue. I think of another pastor friend of mine who was meanly and unjustly fired by his church board. I expect he could have sued and received a significant settlement. But he chose not to press legal charges because he took 1 Corinthians 6 seriously. Moreover, he didn’t want to hurt the church he loved, even though the board of this church had badly injured him. This was a truly Christ-like sacrifice on the part of my friend.

His case illustrates the deeper point. We are to imitate the sacrificial example of Jesus Christ. As Jesus taught, we are to turn the other cheek, to walk the second mile (Matthew 5:39-41). Jesus modeled self-giving sacrifice through his death on the cross. Yes, indeed, this sort of thing grates against our own desire for vindication as well as our culture’s preoccupation with winning no matter what. But our Lord teaches us, both by word and by deed, how to give up our lives so that we might gain true life, eternal life, life in all of its fullness.

If you’re in a conflict with other Christians, whether it is personal, professional, or ecclesiastical, the way NOT to solve the problem is through suing each other in secular court. (I’m not, by the way, implying that lawyers can’t be helpful here. Christians with legal expertise can often assist us in finding just solutions that will keep us from lawsuits. I have seen this very thing happen in my own ministry, where lawyers were extraordinarily helpful in terribly conflicted situations. Competent Christian attorney can help us avoid lawsuits.) Secular lawsuits must not be your first choice, or second, or third. The church, when functioning properly, is the place where true wrongs can and should be adjudicated. Only if the church fails miserably in this duty might it be necessary in some cases for you to get secular legal help.

But before you turn to the civil courts as a last resort, you need to ask the Lord whether he wants you simply to lose. I know this sounds strange. But I think, in light of 1 Corinthians 6 and the example of Jesus Christ, we need to ask the Lord whether he’s calling us to lose the fight. Yes, we may sacrifice our pride for a while. Yes, we may lose certain advantages, financial and otherwise. But what we gain, and what the church of Jesus Christ gains, may well be worth the cost.

I began yesterday’s post by telling the story of my friend Jeff, a pastor who was sued by a disgruntled elder. When Jeff found out that he was being sued, he did not call a lawyer. Instead he did the counter-cultural thing. He called up the elder and said, “I’m not going to fight back because I’m your brother in Christ. We need to work this out in the Lord.” When the elder resisted, Jeff got some other elders to talk with the one who had filed suit. Among other things, they reminded him of Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6. They called him to act as a follower of Jesus Christ. They offered to help work out reconciliation. The unhappy elder was finally willing to drop his suit. Though he and Jeff never fully agreed on what worship should be in their church, they were able to live together in Christian fellowship without recourse to lawsuits.

Yes, I know it doesn’t always end like this. Often people are not as spiritually mature as Jeff. They get caught up in a worldly effort to win. Sometimes church leaders aren’t willing or able to step up, as were the elders of Jeff’s church. But the fact that we Christians fail to do what Scripture calls us to do is no argument for not trying to obey in the first place. We should make every effort to settle our disputes within the context of Christian community. And when this fails, there will be times when God will call us simply to lose rather than to fight on in the courts. Yet in this losing, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, there will be a great gain for God’s kingdom, and even for our own souls.

What Love is All About: Realism Beyond Romance

I’ll confess to being a softy when it comes to romantic things. I’m not necessarily good at thinking them up and doing them, mind you, but I’m an appreciative observer. I’m a sucker for a romantic film, even a corny and predictable one. I like violins crooning the background and happy endings.

But, I must confess that I get nervous about too much romance in weddings, of all places. And since I go to lots of weddings, usually with the best seat in the house, I get nervous a lot. Why? Because I’ve seen too many wonderfully romantic weddings end in heartache. A couple of years ago, I participated in one of the most beautiful and elegant weddings I’d ever seen. It was absolutely wonderful, except for the tiny little problem that the couple I married divorced in less than a year. That’s a big oops, and a very sad one.

One of the most romantic moments from arguably the most romantic wedding of the last fifty years, between Prince Charles and Lady Di. Such romance didn’t guarantee a happy marriage, did it?

I also get nervous over too much romance, maybe it’s better to say idealism, when it comes to the church. I often hear people talk about some new church they’ve found – including a church where I was the pastor – in utterly glowing terms: loving fellowship, inspired worship, fantastic preaching, etc. etc. Though I’m glad they’ve found such a congregation, I worry that too much idealism can lead to all sorts of disappointment and hurt. No matter how wonderful a church may be, it’s still full of real people who, though forgiven, aren’t perfect. And in sucah a fellowship conflict is inevitable.

Years ago when I was an associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I was coaching a team of leaders that was experiencing lots of disagreement. One of the women on the team became exasperated and blurted out: “What’s wrong with this group? I thought we were supposed to be a family!” My response was: “Yes. That’s exactly the problem. How many families do you know that don’t sometimes have major conflicts?” This woman was confronting the reality of the church and the unreality of her idealistic expectations. Soon she was going to have to make a choice about whether or not to stay involved in a genuine but messy and sometimes conflicted fellowship, or to leave and look for greener pastures where her idealistic dreams would be nurtured, at least until she really got involved with those people.

One of the things I love about the Bible is its realism about all sorts of things. Read the Bible and you get a clear picture of what life is really like. When people talk about experiencing church just like in New Testament times, I laugh to myself and wonder if they’ve ever read the New Testament. Make your way through this text and you’ll find that almost every book bears witness to the reality of conflict in the church.

But the New Testament is also realistic about what it takes to overcome conflict. There are lots of specific instructions, some of which I’ve already surveyed in this series. But there are also the overarching principles that will help us find our way through the confusing maze of church conflict. The most important of these principles is love.

As you may know, there is one chapter in the Bible known as “The Love Chapter,” and for good reason. 1 Corinthians 13 uses agape, one of several Greek words for “love,” nine times. That’s as much as in all four gospels combined. Only one other chapter in the whole Bible, 1 John 4, uses the word “love” more frequently. So if you want to know something about love, you’d do well to consult 1 Corinthians 13.

I have often read this chapter in weddings. In terms of frequency, I think it comes in second for all biblical texts (next to Colossians 3:12-17). For a while it was out of style to use this text. But now 1 Corinthians 13 has made a comeback. That’s just fine with me, though I often wonder if couples getting married have really paid much attention to what the text actually says. Sure, it talks a lot about love. But the picture of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is decidedly non-romantic. In fact, you could almost say it’s anti-romantic. It talks about love in realistic, down-to-earth terms. 1 Corinthians 13 says nothing about love being wonderful, happy, or heavenly. There are no inspiring violins playing in the background of 1 Corinthians 13. If you pay attention to what this chapter reveals, you’ll realize that love is hard work, and much of it doesn’t sound like much fun. Maybe that’s why I like reading 1 Corinthians 13 in weddings. It cuts through the overly-romanticized, feeling-centered notions of love with the double-edged sword of God’s realistic Word. It talks about what love is really all about, warts and all.

Of course Paul did not write 1 Corinthians 13 for weddings. It was written because the Corinthian church was in the middle of a big brouhaha over many things. It was written specifically for Christians in conflict, the overarching theme of this blog series. So, in my next post in this series, I’ll begin to examine how 1 Corinthians 13 helps us to deal with conflict among believers in Jesus.

What Love Is All About: Part 2

The specific problem to which 1 Corinthians 13 was addressed concerned the behavior of some Corinthian Christians in the common gatherings and the attitudes attached to that behavior. In a nutshell, some of the Corinthians got very excited about their spiritual abilities, especially the ability to speak in ecstatic, unknown languages – what we call speaking in tongues. Not only did these folks think they were spiritual giants because they could speak in tongues, but also they looked down upon those who didn’t join them in their spiritual exhibitionism. Some of the tongues-speakers, it seems, may even have questioned whether the non-tongues-speakers were worth having around. This sunk in, and some of the non-tongues-speakers began to doubt their value to the community.

As Paul tried to clean up this mess in Corinth, he began by helping the Corinthians understand the ministry of the Spirit and the role of what he called “gifts” from the Spirit. These are given, Paul taught, not for the sake of the individual, but for the benefit of the community. A person who exercised some spiritual gift in the assembly, whether prophesying, healing, or speaking in tongues, did so only by the power of the Spirit and only for the common good. Spiritual gifts were not, therefore, a way of showing off one’s spiritual prowess.

After laying out some basics on the Spirit, Paul proceeded to talk about the church as a human body. His main point with this image was to help the Corinthians understand that every single member had value to the church, just as every body part is necessary if the human body is to be healthy and whole. As Paul was wrapping up his discussion of the church as the body of Christ, he began to segue to some specific instructions on the use of spiritual gifts in the assembly. But then, almost as if he were interrupting himself, he wrote, “First, however, let me tell you about something else that is better than any of them [the spiritual gifts]” (1 Cor 12:31). With this preface he began to compose the passage we call 1 Corinthians 13. Here is the passage in a fairly recent and readable translation:

If I could speak in any language in heaven or on earth but didn’t love others, I would only be making meaningless noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would I be? And if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain and make it move, without love I would be no good to anybody.  If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would be of no value whatsoever.Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud  or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged.  It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out.  Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.

Love will last forever, but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear.  Now we know only a little, and even the gift of prophecy reveals little!  But when the end comes, these special gifts will all disappear.

It’s like this: When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I grew up, I put away childish things.  Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now.

There are three things that will endure–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13, NLT)

I’ll get into the meat of this passage tomorrow. Today, in closing, I want to note its striking introduction.

The first verse is clearly aimed at the Corinthian tongues-speakers. If you speak in tongues, even a heavenly language (which may have been how the Corinthians talked about what they were doing), but don’t have love, then you’re just making a lot of meaningless racket. Of course this is ironic because the Corinthian tongues-speakers were quite aware that their “angelic speech” was unintelligible to others.

After taking a whack at the Corinthian trouble makers, Paul moves on to say, “If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would I be? [literally, “I am nothing”]” (v. 2). Some of the Corinthians were overly excited about knowledge, so Paul still has them in his aim. But when we get to chapter 14 we’ll discover that Paul is going to be a strong advocate of prophecy. So in verse 2 he’s not only targeting the Corinthians. He’s got himself and his own values in view.

As the introduction to chapter 13 continues, Paul continues to target, not so much the Corinthians and their priorities as himself and his values. Even exemplary faith – such as Paul had – and costly self-sacrifice – such as Paul had displayed in his life – were worthless apart from love.

I deeply admire Paul’s ability here, under the influence of the Spirit, to see his own virtues and values as meaningless without love. It would have been easy for him to accuse the Corinthians of failing to love while implying that he was somehow above the fray. But, in point of fact, Paul says: “Look, even the things I value the most, even the good gifts of God, even the attributes I exemplify, like faith and commitment, even these are nothing without love.”

Paul’s example challenges me to consider what I might value so highly as to act as if it matters more than love. I’m afraid the list is quite long, so I’ll only mention a couple of my imbalances.

I’m really big on being right. I value tight arguments, especially when I make them. Also, because I care a whole lot about being right, I hate being wrong. So, for me, the paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13 might read: “If I am always right about everything, if my ideas are the best and my arguments always prevail, and yet I don’t have love, then all of my rightness would be for naught.”

In a related vein, I also care deeply about theological truth. I do my best to search the Scriptures for God’s truth and to present it accurately. I can look a long way down my nose at people who make silly theological errors, or, worse yet, who don’t seem to care as much as I do about theology. Now I don’t think it’s wrong to care about theological truth. On the contrary, it matters hugely. But, like Paul, I need to see even theological truth in light of love. So perhaps 1 Corinthians 13 in the “Mark Roberts Version” should read: “If I know the meaning of the Bible. If I study hard, working from the Greek and the Hebrew, and if I actually get the correct meaning, but don’t have love, then I’m not worth one red cent.”

Perhaps you might relate this text to yourself. What are the things you prize today more than love? How would you live differently this very day if everything you did and said was saturated with love? How would love add meaning and value to your life today?

Tomorrow I’ll continue this discussion, looking especially at some of the essential characteristics of love.

What Love is All About: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Yesterday I began my investigation of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Today I continue by focusing especially on verses 4-7:

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (NLT)

Before I get into the details, a couple of preliminary comments are in order.

First, this passage has obviously been shaped to fit the crisis in Corinth. It has a corrective tone. I rather doubt that if Paul had been given the assignment to write a chapter on love without reference to a given church, he would have come up with eight “love is not” statements among the fifteen qualities of love. It’s pretty clear that Paul wants to point out to the Corinthians where their own behavior is not loving. One might capture Paul’s intent with this paraphrase:

Love is patient and kind, unlike you Corinthians in the way you treat each other. Love is not jealous, as you folks are. Love is not boastful, like you are. And so forth and so on.

Second, in a broader perspective, this description of love is, as I have mentioned before, extraordinarily realistic about human nature. Consider the subtext of these affirmations:

Love is patient. Patience is necessary in human relationships because people will be slow, agonizingly slow. They’ll get on your nerves. They’ll keep making the same mistakes over and over. Therefore love has to be patient.

Love is not jealous.

Ah, but fallen human nature is so very jealous. We see somebody else get affirmation and we feel slighted. If someone else is blessed, we wish we were too. Sometimes we can even hate people who have what we want to have ourselves. Therefore love must not be jealous.

Love does not demand its own way.

But we do, all the time, especially when we’re in a fight with other Christians. We want to win; we want them to lose. We plot and plan to guarantee our success. Often we get so caught up in winning that we lose perspective. Sometimes we even lose sight of the truth. Love, true love, is a corrective to all of this because it seeks what is best for the other, not for ourselves.

Love keeps no record of when it has been wronged.

What, no record? Forgive and forget? You’ve got to be kidding. The record of offenses helps us to win the battle. And it keeps us from being hurt again by others.

I could keep on going, but I think you get the point. Paul’s discussion of love doesn’t whitewash human nature. On the contrary, it assumes that people will be irksome, self-interested, and vengeful. True love cuts across the grain of human nature, calling us to what often seems both unnatural and even silly.

Third, this passage, by reflecting the character of Christ, calls us to genuine and costly Christ-likeness. Throughout my life I’ve heard preachers say that the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is really a description of Christ himself. Take away “love” and plug in “Christ” and you’ll see what they mean: “Christ is patient and kind. Christ is not jealous. . . .” Some have proposed that Paul composed this passage by thinking about Jesus himself, and that may well be true, though we can’t prove it. But the point of this passage is not primarily to praise the character of Christ. Rather, it’s calling us to be like Christ by imitating his love. Thus this text is similar in form to Philippians 2, which calls us to imitate the mind of Christ as it is revealed in his humble incarnation and sacrificial death on the cross.

Of course it’s one thing to talk about loving like Jesus and quite another thing to actually love like Jesus. I’ll pick up this theme tomorrow.

Loving Like Jesus . . . Easier Said Than Done

1 Corinthians 13 calls us to love like Jesus. Though he is not specifically mentioned in verses 4-7, Jesus is surely the model behind Paul’s exhortation. The love of Jesus is epitomized, most of all, in the cross, in his sacrificial death for our sake. We’re to love based on this model.Of course that’s much easier said than done. If we’re honest, we who try to follow Jesus’ example of love often come up short. In fact, sometimes we don’t even want to try and love like Jesus. Have you ever wished you didn’t have to be like Jesus? I have, many times over. I don’t like turning the other cheek and, frankly, I’m not very good at it. I don’t like having to forgive people over and over again. And that’s just the beginning. We can all talk about imitating Jesus, but really doing it, especially in the midst of conflict, is just plain tough.

I remember so well an instance in my ministry when I was working with a group in conflict. The arguments were fierce and tempers flared. People were showing selfish attitudes that seemed so unlike what we’re called to in Scripture. Finally I said to the group, “Friends, I’m hearing what you want to do in this situation, but my question is: What do you think Jesus would do here?” One woman blurted out in anger, “I don’t care what Jesus would do. I AM NOT JESUS!”

Part of me wanted to respond: “Well, that’s obvious.” But, by God’s grace, I did not pour even more fuel on the fire of her selfish anger. In fact, I did admire her ironic honesty, I’ve got to say. But it almost seemed to me as if she was saying that since she wasn’t Jesus she didn’t have to act as he would act. That’s just not adequate for a Christian. A better statement would be: “It’s really hard to be like Jesus because I am not Jesus. But I know I’m called to be like him, as tough as it can be. So, Lord, help me! HELP ME BE LIKE JESUS!”

I’ll bet I’ve prayed this prayer at least 200 times in my life, in situations where my patience has run out, where I haven’t wanted to be kind, where I have had a long record of wrongs, and where I’ve cared most of all about my own way. Sometimes, I’m sad to admit, I’ve done what comes naturally and acted in selfishness. But there have been times when I’ve sensed the Lord helping me to be like him. He’s given me patience I just don’t have. He’s helped me to subordinate my agenda to his. He’s allowed me to hear my opponent, not just as someone to be defeated in debate, but as a human being with needs, fears, hurts, and tender desires.

If you’re in the middle of conflict with other Christians right now, I can almost guarantee that you don’t want to be like Jesus. Admittedly, his way isn’t easy. But it’s the way of love, the way of peace, and the way of God.

If you have the courage to try it, take 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and use it to measure your own attitudes and behaviors, especially in reference to those with whom you are in conflict. Have you been patient, really? Have you been kind, truly? How has your kindness been expressed to those with whom you differ? Have you been demanding your own way? Are you keeping a record of wrongs? Are you willing to endure no matter what may come your way? Think about it. Pray about it.

Tomorrow I’ll continue my investigation of 1 Corinthians 13 and its implications for conflict among Christians.

Love for the Long Haul

I mentioned earlier in this series that I get nervous sometimes over the hyper-romanticism of weddings. All too often that which begins in dreamy splendor ends in the all-too-real sadness of disappointment or divorce. Romantic love is just fine, but it won’t last for the long haul.1 Corinthians 13 envisions another kind of love, a love that lasts, well, forever. Here’s what we read in the latter part of the chapter:

Love will last forever, but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear. Now we know only a little, and even the gift of prophecy reveals little! But when the end comes, these special gifts will all disappear.It’s like this: When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now.

There are three things that will endure–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:8-13, NLT)

As we’ve seen before, Paul writes with the Corinthian conflicts in mind. Their prized possessions – speaking in tongues and special knowledge – don’t hold a candle to love, which alone lasts forever. But, once again, Paul also includes the spiritual gift he values most, prophecy, among those things that will pass away. So, though nailing the Corinthians for their unloving priorities, Paul makes sure to keep his own preferences in mind.

To understand this passage correctly, we must note Paul’s eschatological perspective. Eschatology, the understanding of the end of history, called the eschaton in Greek, shapes Paul’s theology throughout his writings. It’s particularly obvious in 1 Corinthians 13. Here Paul envisions life in this world as a rather childlike reality. Though we see spiritual things, we do so imperfectly. But the time will come when we will know everything completely, just as God knows us now. (The NLT renders the thought accurately here, but misses the marvelous imagery of seeing God face to face. What an extraordinary hope we have of knowing the Lord so intimately and fully!)

In light of the eschaton, love gains value while the worth of other good gifts diminishes. Prophecy won’t be needed then because it will be completely fulfilled. Special knowledge won’t count for much when we know God perfectly. Speaking in tongues will pass away as well. Even faith and hope pale in comparison with love when seen in eschatological perspective. After all, faith will be rather easy when we see God face to face. And hope, well, that won’t even be necessary because our hopes will have been realized. But love will last forever.

I would suggest that you and I need to learn to see life in terms of eternity. We need to equip ourselves for the long haul. When this happens, we’ll see just how much love is really worth. It’s worth more than prophecy, tongues, knowledge, faith, and hope.

Remember that the love Paul speaks of isn’t the touchy-feely kind. It isn’t about having warm fuzzies. Rather, love is costly, sacrificial care for others. It’s being patient, kind, etc. etc.

When we’re in the middle of conflict with other Christians, it’s terribly easy to value many things more than love, things such as: vindication, winning the argument, putting others in their place, proving how right we are, and so forth. Love gets lost in the flurry of argument and anger. We can actually think that temporal things have eternal value, while devaluing that which truly lasts forever, namely love.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share an example from my own life of taking the long view of reality helped me to love.

The Long View of Love

Many years ago I found myself in a conflict with a fellow leader in my church. Though I tried everything I could think of to bring reconciliation, I failed. As he was leaving our church, he made sure that many people knew of my shortcomings, or what he perceived to be my shortcomings, at any rate. Some of what he said was probably correct; much of it was unfair. In response to his attacks on me and my character, I wanted desperately to bring this man down, to tell the congregation – no, the whole world – what a nasty person he had been to me. In those days the biblical call to love didn’t seem like a guide for better living. It felt instead like a huge anchor hung around my neck to keep me from sailing where I wanted to head.More out of a sense of duty to God than anything else, I resolved to love this man to the limits of my ability, and beyond, I prayed, by God’s own strength. So I made sure that my public communications about this man were always positive. I said things about him that were true and kept the negative to myself (and a couple of trusted friends). It was really hard to do this!

I wish I could tell you that my efforts brought reconciliation with this brother. They did not. And I wish I could tell you that everybody in the church realized what a godly saint I was being in contrast to the other man. They didn’t, and some left the church over this incident. If I look at this event only from a short-term perspective, love seemed to lose the day. It seemed naïve and self-defeating to love, perhaps even injurious to the church I was seeking to pastor. But if I look at what happened in light of eternity, I believe that the choice to love was the right one. If nothing else, God was honored by my modest efforts to follow Jesus. Moreover, the painful choice to love helped me grow in my own faith and discipleship. I became more like Christ in some small way, not only in that moment, but also in my eternal soul. Moreover, those in my church who knew the truth, and that included many of my key leaders, saw in my example something that encouraged and instructed them.

Lest I appear to be bragging, let me say that I have often failed to follow Jesus in the way of love. I could collect a lineup of people who would bear witness to my ample failures. And I surely failed in many ways during the season of testing I’m describing now. But God’s grace is able to touch even a person like me. If he can help me to love when I really don’t want to, when my fallen nature says “Get even,” when my pride says, “Bring him down,” then God can help you as well.

So often we Christians have narrow, short-term vision. We look at today as if it’s everything. Yet if we step back and get some perspective, if we look at our lives from God’s point of view, if we think about the fact that God holds all of history in his capable hands, then we’ll be able to live according to eternal priorities. And from this angle, the greatest thing of all is love.

My grandparents and me about 25 years ago. They were married well over fifty years, with a long-term, committed love.

One of my favorite things to do as a pastor is to help couples celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversaries. There’s something tender about recognizing love that has lasted over the long haul. Often these events are quite romantic as well, and romance of this sort doesn’t worry me in the least. In fact I think it’s great, well, most of the time, anyway. A few years ago I was talking to the wife of the couple whose anniversary we were celebrating. “I’ll bet ‘Jim’ loves you more now than he did fifty years ago,” I said. The woman’s answer just about knocked me over, “Well, he certainly seemed to feel that way last night in bed!” Yeow, I thought, that’s just great, and I’m really happy for you. But that was too much information! Nevertheless, I know that this marriage was sustained by much more than moments of passionate fervor. It lasted because of the sacrificial commitment of both the husband and the wife. Their love, a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love, had been good for the long haul.

May God help us to give real love its rightful place in our lives. May we learn now to love now in a way that will last forever.

Love is Fine, But What About?

I’ve received lots of comments and emails in response to this series on Christians in conflict. Many have left me with mixed feelings. I’ve heard from people who have found my discussion to be very helpful to them, a fact that would ordinarily make me glad. But the reason that my ideas have been germane is that so many Christians are caught up in conflict with other believers. This is very sad. One man put it well. He said, “Thanks for your series on conflict. It’s right on target . . . unfortunately.”I’ve also received many questions, great questions, about how what I’ve been writing about can be worked out in practice. One of these questions has focused on a particular problem: “What do I do when someone has truly wronged me? 1 Corinthians 13 calls for patience, not keeping a record of wrongs, and so forth. So am I supposed to forget about what someone has done and pretend like it hasn’t happened? This seems wrong. What should I do in this situation?” This is a crucial concern, and one I plan to take up shortly.

It’s easy for me to envision many misuses of 1 Corinthians 13. Suppose, for example, a person has treated another person unjustly. When the victim presents the offense, I can imagine the perpetrator saying, “Ah, there you go again, keeping a record of wrongs.” The NIV translation of 1 Corinthians 13:5 reads, “[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” So, one who confronts another with his or her sin might be accused of “keeping a record of wrongs,” that is, being unloving.

Although I haven’t had this exact experience, I have heard a similar accusation from an employee whom I was supervising. This employee was not fulfilling his job description in a number of crucial areas. When I brought these to his attention, he accused me of being unforgiving and not offering grace. In his view, since I was a Christian, I should have been willing to forgive all of his failures, which seemed to imply that I should accept his job performance no matter how poor it might have been. Yet, for many reasons, I disagreed with him. As his supervisor, in a situation where he was not performing his job adequately, I was expected to do something that seemed a lot like keeping a record of wrongs. How could I justify this in light of 1 Corinthians 13? Was I being unloving in fulfilling my duties as a supervisor?

This is just one of thousands of challenges to the ethic of love. There’s no way I can begin to address even a tiny percentage of these real-life situations. But, I will consider the case I have just brought forward and the issue of keeping a record of wrongs. This example might help us as we try to live out the call to love in the complicated situations of our lives.

Love and Keeping a Record of Wrongs

In my last post I began to consider what it means that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). In particular, I raised the question of whether or not it’s ever appropriate for a loving Christian to keep track of wrongs done by another person. One could, and I expect some already have, interpret “keeping no record of wrongs” as meaning “never even noting that a wrong has been done” or “not ever remembering past wrongs for any reason.” So if somebody in the church speaks unkindly to you, under this reading it would be loving simply to pretend as if it had never happened. Is this the right interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:5?When I used to teach biblical exegesis in seminary, I helped students pay close attention to the actual words being used and to the context, both immediate and larger, of those words. In responsible biblical interpretation we aren’t free to guess what the words mean or to interject what we wish they meant. Rather, we try to discover the original meaning through careful investigation. This is what I’ll try to do here with the phrase “keeps no record of wrongs.”

The Greek words literally mean: “[Love] does not reckon the wrong/evil/bad thing [ou logizetai to kakon].” Commentators aren’t exactly sure what this phrase meant in first-century Greek, however. The phrase “to reckon evil(s)” does appear several times in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. There it means “devise evil against,” as in Zechariah 8:17 (LXX): “And each one of you should not devise the evil thing in your hearts against your neighbor [ten kakian . . . me logizesthe].” If Paul is using language in the sense of the Greek Old Testament, as he often does, then 1 Corinthians 13:5 really means, “[Love] does not devise evil [against another person].”

But Paul often uses the verb logizomai in the sense of “adding to someone’s account,” as in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting [logizomenos] their trespasses against them.” So his ordinary usage of this verb suggests that 1 Corinthians 13:5 means: “[Love] does not charge wrongdoing to the account of the perpetrator,” or “keeps no record of wrongs.” Yet I wouldn’t want to build a whole theology on such an ambiguous phrase when we can’t be precisely sure of what it means.

As we try to weigh the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13:5 in its historical context, we don’t know exactly what situation Paul was addressing. It may well be that some members of the Corinthian community were “adding up the wrongs” of others, largely to show that they themselves were better Christians than those with long lists of sins. It may be that Paul’s concern was a lack of genuine forgiveness on the part of some Corinthians, and “keeping a record of wrongs” means “not forgiving.” But we can’t be exactly sure of the Corinthian context for Paul’s counsel either. Our search for the right interpretation of “keeping a record of wrongs” must move to the larger biblical context.

As we consider this greater context, we realize that “not keeping a record of wrongs” cannot mean that there is never accountability for wrongdoers, that sinners simply get a pass when they do wrong. Many of Paul’s own letters contain specific charges against his churches concerning things they have done wrong. Moreover, remember God’s response to human sin. In a sense, God certainly keeps a record of wrongs. Through the prophets he chastises Israel time and again for her faithlessness and disobedience, often listing in detail the sins of the people (see, for example, Isaiah 1). We might also recall Jesus’ “woes” upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, where he chronicles their multiple sins. Since God is love, and Jesus is the love of God incarnate, this sort of logging of sins must not be the unloving “keeping a record of wrongs.”

Where does this leave us? God certainly doesn’t ignore wrongdoing. He not only records it, if you will, but he takes it so seriously that he sent his only son to die for our sins. It would have been much less costly if God simply pretended as if our sins didn’t exist. But this would contradict his holiness and righteousness.

Yet God doesn’t record our sins so that there might be a permanent breach in his relationship with us. He pays close attention to our sin; he confronts us with the truth of our sin; he holds us accountable for our actions so that we might receive his forgiveness in Christ, so that we might be cleansed and set free, so that we might sin no more. In the end, God chooses even to forget our sins (Jeremiah 31:34). But this isn’t the same as ignoring them or pretending as if they hadn’t happened in the first place. The divine “forgetting” happens only after God has dealt with sin through the new covenant in the blood of Christ. We experience the benefits of that new covenant only when we acknowledge our sin and put our trust in Christ as our Savior.

Therefore, God does not keep a record of our wrongs in that, after he deals with them through the cross, and after we confess and are forgiven, God chooses to look upon us as if we had not sinned. At first he does keep a record of wrongs, however, calling us to account for what we have done that is contrary to his will. But in the end his mercy triumphs as the record of wrongs is nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13-15).

Where does this leave us in our effort to imitate God’s love by not keeping a record of wrongs? Well, it does not mean that we should simply pretend as if a wrongdoing hasn’t happened. (Sure, we should ignore trivial, unintended offenses at times, but this isn’t the main point of our text.) When someone has wronged us, there needs to be an accounting for this wrong. The offender needs to acknowledge the offense so that there can be reconciliation. Ignoring or rationalizing or minimizing sin is yet another form of sin, and must be avoided.

But, at the same time, if you have been hurt by someone, you cannot let that hurt erect an impenetrable barrier between you and the person who wronged you. You can’t let your record of the wrongs of another become the basis for fractured relationship or broken Christian community. Like God, you need to be instrumental in a process that leads to genuine repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. If, after the one who has offended you has apologized, you are still hanging on to your record of wrongs, then you have missed the point of God’s love and grace. This, I believe, is what 1 Corinthians 13:5 would regard as unloving behavior.

Now I realize that the kind of process I’ve been describing isn’t an easy one. Believe me, I know this! I’ve been involved in some of the messiest and most confusing efforts to bring reconciliation. Often what makes them so messy and confusing is the failure (or even unwillingness) of involved parties to do what Jesus tells us to do in such a circumstance. In my next post I’m going to deal with this topic. So stay tuned . . . .

This series continues in the next series: What To Do If Someone Sins Against You: The Teaching of Jesus.